A police evidence file documenting Gerry Adams' Irish Republican Army career has been delivered to British state prosecutors in Belfast, but experts say the chances of the Sinn Fein leader being charged are slim on legal, political and particularly national-security grounds.
Adams, 65, walked free Sunday after five days of police interrogation and declared his innocence in the unsolved 1972 abduction, slaying and secret burial of a Belfast mother of 10, Jean McConville.
Her children expressed disappointment that he had not been charged but vowed to press ahead seeking damages in a civil lawsuit, where the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal trial.
Adams says he chiefly was questioned about the audiotaped claims of IRA veterans, who identified him as the Belfast IRA commander responsible for ordering McConville's disappearance. The tapes were supposed to remain locked away in a Boston College oral history project, but British authorities successfully sued in U.S. courts to obtain 11 tapes that mentioned McConville.
Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service now must make the final call on whether police have collected enough evidence to charge Adams with membership in an outlawed group. The Belfast office is led by Adams' former lawyer, Barra McGrory, who says he will play no role in the decision given the potential conflict of interest.
His deputy, Pamela Atchison, will decide.
"A lot of us have felt for many years that Mr. Adams' alleged membership (in) the IRA walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. But it will be up to the director of public prosecutions to decide if it is a duck," said investigative journalist John Ware, who for three decades produced documentaries on the Northern Ireland conflict, including the inner workings of the IRA.
Adams' long commanding role in an underground group responsible for killing nearly 1,800 people is not in doubt. Every seriously researched history of militant Irish republicanism says Adams, following his father and many in-laws, joined the Belfast IRA in 1966 and rose quickly through the ranks, switching allegiance to the newly formed Provisional IRA in 1970.
By 1972, though only 23, Adams was important enough to the Provisionals that, during its first face-to-face negotiations with the British government during a brief cease-fire, Britain agreed to release Adams from prison and fly him by Royal Air Force helicopter to the secret London talks. Adams held no important position in Sinn Fein, which itself played no meaningful role in the conflict until several years later. It was a high-ranking IRA delegation, and Adams was its young star.
After the failed talks — the IRA demanded Britain's withdrawal from Northern Ireland, something most of its citizens have never wanted — Adams went on the run as the IRA launched its biggest car-bomb offensive on Belfast, dubbed "Bloody Friday."
Adams was recaptured in mid-1973 during an IRA meeting alongside Brendan Hughes, a close comrade; a prison picture shows the two smiling, arm in arm. They both were interned without trial, the British policy at the time. Britain started criminally prosecuting IRA members only in 1976.
Three decades later, Hughes became the first of the Boston College interviewees to identify Adams as the commander responsible for ordering McConville's killing. That slow-burning fuse culminated in Adams' arrest last week, when he also faced questions about the contents of other IRA audiotapes that may never be made public.
Adams says Hughes, who died of cancer in 2008, was lying and motivated by hatred of Adams' decision to steer the IRA toward 1990s cease-fires and political compromise with Britain and the province's British Protestant majority. The Good Friday peace accord of 1998 ultimately delivered IRA disarmament and Sinn Fein's place inside a government for Northern Ireland, a state the IRA long pledged to destroy.
Experts agree that Adams' political importance in keeping Northern Ireland relatively peaceful now is a key reason why a prosecution would make no sense on national security grounds. The punishment from any conviction would be token, too, because IRA members convicted of pre-1998 crimes receive speedy paroles under the terms of the Good Friday pact.
Not only do the police lack the kind of cast-iron evidence typically needed for a successful IRA prosecution — forensics pinning Adams' DNA to weapons, or living witnesses willing to risk an IRA death threat to testify against him — but Adams' peacemaking leadership is too widely valued by Britain, Ireland and the United States.
While police must consider only the evidence itself, British prosecutors also are legally obliged to consider the "public interest" in deciding whether to bring charges. Some, particularly politicians from Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, think forcing an honest narrative from Adams is of primary public interest.
Most neutral analysts don't, however. They think Adams' leadership position needs to be protected, lest Sinn Fein lose control of a new generation of IRA militants, some of whom already continue to try to kill police officers.
Fears of Adams being charged spurred senior Sinn Fein colleagues to warn that the party could withdraw its support for the police. That hard-won 2007 commitment underpins Northern Ireland's unity government and permits police to operate in hard-line Irish Catholic communities without British Army backup.
"It's doubtful whether it is in the public interest to charge him (Adams) with membership. It is a serious offense but the war is over," Ware said. Any prosecution decision on the police file, he said, must weigh "the dominant role that Mr. Adams played in persuading the IRA to cross the road and engage in peace."